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Abstract

This collection of Morton letters forms part of a bound volume of incoming correspondence. It is a companion volume to the original letters in the Morton collection at the American Philosophical Society, which were also originally bound. Most of the subjects of the two collections overlap, but additional subjects in the microfilmed collection include American Indians, archaeology, Egyptology, and phrenology.

Background note

Samuel George Morton (1799-1851, APS 1828) was a physician, anatomy professor, naturalist and physical anthropologist. Morton’s most important medical works include an American edition of John Mackintosh’s respected Principles of Pathology and Practice of Physic, and An Illustrated System of Human Anatomy. His Synopsis of the Organic Remains of the Cretaceous Group of the U.S. was a groundbreaking work in paleontology. But, his Crania Americanaestablished Morton as Antebellum America's foremost craniologist, casting a long shadow over the history of physical anthropology and "race science."

Morton was the son of the Philadelphia merchant, George Morton, and Jane Cummings. He was left fatherless at an early age, and was taken by his mother to be raised in Westchester County, N.Y.. Attending Quaker schools, he was fed a steady diet of natural history and empirical science. He returned to Philadelphia in 1812 after his mother's remarriage to Thomas Rogers, an amateur mineralogist, who encouraged the boy’s early interest in science. Morton’s Quaker education continued first at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania, then at the Friend’s School in Burlington, N.J., headed by a family friend, astronomer and mathematician John Gummere (1784-1845, APS 1814).

In 1815, however, Morton's education was interrupted when he was apprenticed to a merchant in the city. After his mother's death in 1817, Morton broke away from commerce and began to study medicine with the prominent physician Joseph Parrish (1779-1840, APS 1815) at the University of Pennsylvania. He was awarded an M.D. degree in 1820. Support from a wealthy uncle in Ireland allowed Morton to further his medical education at the University of Edinburgh. While at Edinburgh University he also attended the geology lectures of Profesor Robert Jameson, who later taught the young Charles Darwin. Morton graduated from Edinburgh in 1823 with a thesis entitled De corporis dolore.

Morton returned to Philadelphia with sterling credentials as a physician; however, for several years, he struggled to establish himself in the city's tightly-knit medical community. In 1827 he married Rebecca Pearsall of Philadelphia, and they had eight children. Morton built up his practice slowly, becoming a physician to the Philadelphia Almshouse in 1829 and teaching in Joseph Parrish’s Philadelphia Medical Association for Medical Instruction after 1830. From 1839-1843 he served as Professor of Anatomy at Pennsylvania College (later Gettysburg College). During these years Morton affiliated with several of the local scientific and medical organizations. He became an important member of the Philadelphia Association for Medical Instruction, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1820, and the American Philosophical Society in 1828. During this period he also produced his first published works; a medical paper on the use of cornine for treatment of intermittent fevers that appeared in the Philadelphia Journal of Medical and Physical Sciences in 1826 and another in 1834 that recommended fresh air for pulmonary consumption. In 1836 Morton prepared the first American edition of John Mackintosh’s authoritative Principles of Pathology and Practice of Physic.

Outside medicine, Morton built a substantial reputation as an adept natural historian. Joseph Parrish’s assistant the naturalist and anatomist Richard Harlan, who got Morton elected to the Academy of Natural Science, directed his scientific research. His earliest research projects in the late 1820s and 1830s, are epitomized by his well-regarded study of the fossils collected by Lewis and Clark, Synopsis of the Organic Remains of the Cretaceous Group of the United States (1834). While his interests centered on the then-chic fields of geology and paleontology, he soon shifted his focus to anthropology.

In 1830 Morton began to collect human craniums, later accumulating over 1,000. He began to take a deep interest in racial science, and his groundbreaking work in craniology and craniometry proved to be the most enduring of his scientific contributions. The prominence of phrenology in Philadelphia scientific circles, reflected in the work of Charles Caldwell and others, quickened Morton's interests in the measurement of skulls as a means of identifying and comparing the intellectual capacities and "character" of the races. He was never a field anthropologist. Rather, he depended entirely upon scientific colleagues such as Marmaduke Burrough (1767-1844, APS 1833) and Ephraim George Squier, as well as merchants, missionaries, and members of the military for specimens, eventually assembling the largest collection of skulls in North America. These became the basis of his painstaking, statistical comparisons of human populations. His skull collection was eventually donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and is documented in the exhaustive Catalogue of Skulls of Man, and the Inferior Animals, in the Collection of Samuel George Morton(1840).

The first fruits of Morton's research were published as Crania Americana, or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America (1839), a work which sought to corroborate the five-fold racial division of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840, APS 1798). Based upon his estimates of cranial volume, Morton concluded that the American Indians from Canada to Patagonia were descended from a common stock (i.e., were monophyletic) that was clearly distinct from the races of the Old World. He argued forcefully against the theory that environment contributed to race formation. More importantly for the subsequent history of racial science, Morton claimed to have demonstrated the presence of significant differences in cranial capacity -- and therefore intelligence -- among the races, with "Mongolians" and Caucasians heading the list, and "Americans" and "Ethiopians" at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In his second major work in the field, Crania Aegyptiaca, or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy, History, and the Monuments(1844), Morton took his reasoning further. Comparing skulls obtained by George R. Gliddon from archaeological sites in Egypt, he deduced that racial distinctions were as prominent 6,000 years ago as they were in 1840. The elite of Ancient Egypt, he argued, were Caucasians, and while "Negroes" were abundant, "their social position, in ancient times was the same as it now is; that of servants or slaves." In essence, Morton argued for the polygenic origins of humanity and the inexpungibility of racial distinctions.

Morton's work on craniology met with a receptive audience in much of the United States. The country’s scientific elite such as Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz lauded its massive empirical base. The implications of his theories for human relations were endorsed avidly by pro-slavery advocates. His most zealous supporters were George R. Gliddon and the Alabama physician, Josiah Nott, who developed his own, highly elaborated polygenic theory as an apologetic for slavery. However, support for Morton's conclusions did not align easily with such sentiments. The apparent conflict of Morton's work with the theory of unitary origins presented in the book of Genesis proved unpalatable to many religiously-inclined scientists, including those who defended slavery on other grounds. Prominent among his detractors was the South Carolinian, John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and natural historian, who was no opponent of slavery. Bachman argued that the interfertility of Africans and Caucasians proved the Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race(1850). Morton responded to such claims with an investigation into the hybridization in plants and animals that appeared in Silliman’s American Journal of Science and Arts (1847). Perhaps more importantly, he seems to have avoided addressing the social implications of his craniology.

Morton, who suffered ill health for much of his life, had an attack of pleurisy in 1848 that seriously weakened his heart and lungs. Three years later he died. It was reported that before his illness Morton had planned a work on the "Elements of Ethnology"; however, he died before he could begin the new work. Friends remarked on his modesty, courtesy and “gentleness of manner.” Morton was survived by his wife Rebecca and all of his eight children.

Collection information

Provenance

Montgomery, Hugh

Location of originals:

Originals owned by Dr. Hugh Montgomery, Gladwyne, PA.

Early American History Note

This is a microfilm of an early American collection that may be of interest to researchers at the APS and may complement an original manuscript collection at the APS.

General note

This microfilm has been incoporated into the Samuel George Morton Papers (call #: B M843) as Series IV.

Indexing Terms

Family Name(s)

  • Cortina, T. Gomez de la.

Genre(s)

  • Microfilm Collection

Personal Name(s)

  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887
  • Chapman, Nathaniel, 1780-1853
  • Dana, James D. (James Dwight), 1813-1895
  • Farias, Hermin G.
  • French, B. F., (Benjamin Franklin), 1799-1877
  • Gliddon, George R.(George Robins),1809-1857.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von, 1769-1859
  • Kane , John K., (John Kintzing), 1795-1858
  • Locke, John, 1792-1856
  • Lyell, Charles, Sir, 1797-1875
  • Maclure, Alexander
  • Morton, Samuel George, 1799-1851
  • Peale, Rembrandt, 1778-1860
  • Ravenel, Edmund, 1797-1871
  • Rush, William, 1756-1833

Subject(s)

  • Archaeology
  • Craniology.
  • Education.
  • Egyptology.
  • Geology.
  • Indians of North America
  • Medicine.
  • Mineralogy.
  • Paleontology.
  • Phrenology.